Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat

Conservatives and business like to blame government for most of the problems in society. They must scapegoat government in order to distract public attention from the real causes of many of our social and economic problems.

In the summer of 2011, the U.S. economy was still suffering from the lingering effects of the Great Recession that  began in 2008.  Economic growth was anemic, a double dip recession was a very real possibility, and unemployment remained disturbingly high.  While serious analysts debated about how to best revive the economy, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives came up with a novel approach to this problem: they passed a bill that curtailed thirty-nine environmental regulations. As Rep. Mike Simpson explained:  "Many of us believe that overregulation by the EPA is at the heart of our stalled economy."1  Not be be outdone, Rep. Michelle Bachmann came up with her own pet theory about how the government had to be the cause of our economic woes.  She announced that health care reform was the reason we had such high unemployment.  She seemed to forget that the major components of that bill were not scheduled to take effect for several years.

These examples of bizarre reasoning should really have surprised no one.  They are typical of what has become an ongoing and central political strategy of anti-government conservatives: to blame the government for just about every problem we have as a society. This idea has always been popular in conservative circles, but it received a major boost from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural addressed in which he famously quipped that “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” It was an argument that resonated deeply with most conservatives, and they have engaged in a continuous campaign to make the government the scapegoat for virtually all of society’s ills.

This article will reveal exactly what is wrong with this effort to use government as a scapegoat.  It will first show that government policy is usually not the cause of our country’s problems. Second, it will answer an intriguing question: why do conservatives and the business community continually insist on blaming government even when their arguments make very little sense? The answer, it turns out, has to do with the way that this scapegoating serves to distract Americans from the real causes of their problems.

The “Blame Government” Strategy

Using the government as a universal scapegoat is very clever political strategy on the part of conservatives. It plays directly into a traditional American distrust of government. And if people can be convinced that “the real problem in the United States is the same one being recognized all over the world: too much government,” then little else need be said to get them to support reducing government.2 And it seems that there are certainly many Americans who are willing to buy this “blaming government” argument. One poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe that “government creates more problems than it solves.”3 And another found that a very large majority of Americans (71%) blame government for stagnant wages.To the extent that people can be made to believe such things, the easier it becomes for anti-state conservatives to reduce government. It just makes common sense to try to reduce the cause of your problems, doesn’t it?

Now there is no denying that sometimes government policies cause problems or make the problems they are addressing worse. Given thousands of policies, inevitably some of them will fail in this way. A good example of this is our federal “War on Drugs” policy. Many political commentators on both the left and right have now concluded that approaching drugs as a crime problem and relying on police efforts to solve it has not worked well. Indeed, this approach has had a lot of unintentional and bad consequences: it has created a more lucrative black market in drugs, increased drug-related violence and crime, and filled our prisons to overflowing with drug users and small-time dealers. You could make a good case that this drug policy has created more problems that it has solved – which is exactly why most other Western countries have abandoned it in favor of an approach that emphasizes decriminalization and drug treatment programs. But such policies failures are hardly evidence that “government is the problem.” They don’t indicate that government is flawed, just that particular policies are flawed. And they don’t mean that we should have less government, just that we need different and better policies in some areas.

Besides, policy failures like these are not really what conservatives are getting at when they say the government is the problem. What they mean is that misguided government policies are actually causing many of our social and economic problems. Is the economy stagnant? It is because of government over-regulation of business. Are you having trouble paying your bills or sending your children to college on your current wages? It is because government takes so much of your salary in taxes. Concerned about the persistent level of poverty in this country? It is due to overly generous welfare programs that make government handouts more profitable than working. Are your kids misbehaving and defying authority? It’s the fault of the public schools for not teaching them the right values. You didn’t get that job or that promotion? It is probably the fault of government promoted affirmative action programs. Upset about the rising divorce rate and the continuing demise of the traditional family? It’s because government has made divorce too easy. Are you worried about promiscuity among young people and teenage pregnancy? Blame the sex education programs in our public schools. Do you not have enough money for retirement? It’s the fault of government for not letting you invest your Social Security money in the stock market. Did your job go overseas? It’s because your local government didn’t do enough to keep the business in your city. And so on. For many conservatives, government has become a one-size fits-all explanation that can be stretched to fit just about every problem in this country.


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